The Day of Silence was the scariest day of the year for me when I was in high school. Those memories came back to me yesterday, when I learned that at McGuffey High School, a rural Pennsylvania high school in Washington County, students allegedly planned what amounts to an entire anti-LGBTQ Spirit Week to coincide with their Day of Silence on Wednesday. Students posted pictures of themselves on social media wearing flannel shirts on the Day of Silence and writing “Anti-Gay” on their hands. The posts indicated that the students would be wearing red on the following school day to signify their opposition to LGBTQ students, and that they had many more “anti-gay” days planned. Students at McGuffey who participated in the Day of Silence reported that they were verbally harassed, physically assaulted, and had offensive notes taped to their lockers. These students told local Channel 11 News that they are afraid to return to school.
Organized by GLSEN, the Day of Silence is an annual event in support of LGBTQ students. Participants take a vow of silence for the school day to draw attention to issues of bullying and harassment, which effectively silence LGBTQ youth from living openly. Nationally, the Day of Silence was held on Friday, April 17, but McGuffey High School students choose to observe the event on Wednesday, April 15.
A school board meeting was held on the Thursday following McGuffey High School’s Day of Silence, and students and community members came out to share their stories and their concerns. Kathy Cameron, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Washington County Gay Straight Alliance, Inc. was present at the meeting, and reported that several students voiced their experiences on the Day of Silence to the school board members. Cameron described the school board members as being “receptive and reactive,” and stated that they “appeared to understand the gravity of the situation.”
McGuffey School District Superintendent Dr. Erica Kolat released a statement to media, saying, “Yesterday afternoon, April 16, 2015, allegations of harassment were brought to the attention of our administration. McGuffey School District, along with school police officers, continue to investigate all allegations. We will follow our Student Code of Conduct, and file legal citations, as warranted. We resolve to ensure that all children can grow and learn in a safe, supportive environment free from discrimination.”
Taking a stand against the harassment and violence which has already occurred is a good first step, but ensuring that all students grow and learn in an environment free from discrimination requires greater institutional change.
For the past three school years, McGuffey School District has reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Education that zero incidents of bullying have occurred in the district, despite the fact that the CDC has found that about 20% of students in Pennsylvania report being the targets of bullying. Additionally, the district’s nondiscrimination policy and anti-bullying policy contain no mention of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
I call upon McGuffey School District to send a clear message against discrimination by updating their nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies to list sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as protected categories, accurately reporting to the Pennsylvania Department of Education incidents of bullying, and appropriately preventing and intervening in all situations of student intimidation and harassment.
As I read the reports about McGuffey High School, I was immediately taken back to a spring day when I was in middle school, sitting in the back of the bus and trying to blend in with the infinitely cooler high school students as they conversed about the high school’s upcoming “Gay Day.” The general consensus of the group was that on the Day of Silence next week, which they called “Gay Day,” you were supposed to wear “black if you’re anti-gay, white if you’re gay, and red if you’re not gay, but you support gay people.” There was some contention over the proper color to identify oneself as bisexual. I wasn’t even in high school at the time, and no sort of event had been spoken of at the middle school, but I was terrified of drawing unwanted attention to myself or causing offense through my almost entirely black wardrobe. I marked the date on my calendar and remembered to wear a neutral blue shirt.
Matters had improved by the time I reached high school, but every year, I imagined walking into school on the Day of Silence to face an entire group of people visibly protesting my very existence. Being an openly LGBTQ or allied student could be intimidating on the other 179 days of the school year, but an entire day dedicated towards raising visibility for our issues made me feel like I had a target on my back. My high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance prepared for the Day of Silence for weeks in advance, planning our shirts, ordering bracelets, and talking about what to do if we encountered harassment or violence. During my senior year of high school, our GSA opted to create matching Day of Silence shirts in black, to represent the legacy of black shirts being used to threaten and silence our fellow LGBTQ students.
I was incredibly fortunate to never have experienced anything like the trauma that LGBTQ and allied students from McGuffey High School have been forced to cope with. These students are facing the nightmare that kept me awake every night before the Day of Silence. Institutional change is necessary to end this blatant discrimination and hatred.
There is no easy fix to the deeply embedded problems of homophobia, transphobia, and violence in our schools, but McGuffey School District administrators, faculty, and staff have the ability to take a meaningful stand against discrimination in their district. I urge the McGuffey School District to implement policies which support LGBTQ students and to responsibly report and intervene in incidents of bullying, harassment, and violence. Solely reacting to this situation is not enough. The McGuffey School District must be proactive in changing policies and holding themselves accountable in order to prevent this bigotry from occurring again.